KISS my magnet – or may the Force be with you!

KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid – a great motto, at least for me, for the simpler it gets the more profound it seems to get and the simplest and most profound piece of science I remember from what? Elementary school? Junior High? I’m not sure. Maybe even high school. But it was at least 50 years ago, so while the insignificant details have escaped me, the significant detail remains: Like magic, iron filings dropped on a sheet of paper line up along the lines of force created by a bar magnet placed underneath that paper.

Why do I find this so profound? Because it is action at a distance. Oh sure, you say, the thickness of the paper – not much of a distance. No! Look at how the magnetic force reaches out to left and right several inches beyond the magnet. That’s distance!

And order. Pour iron filings onto a sheet of paper and you have chaos. It looks like this.

random_filings

But place a magnet under that piece of paper, then sprinkle the filings on it and you get something like this. (I like watching this in fullscreen – and meditative – mode. It is not intended ot be a wham-bam-thank-you-mam video. Damn! I want things to slow down long enough for me to engage something other than the skin of my brain.)

Simple. You’ve all seen it, right? Or have you? I’m not sure I saw it as a child. But with each passing year – with growing knowledge – I feel my eyes start to open. What was so understandable – I mean there was a “north” end and a “south” end and of course the filings lined up this way because magnets attract iron, dummy. What’s to know?

Well how? Please tell me what is actually happening here? Why should a magnet attract the filings? What are “north-south”, “positive-negative,” but names we’ve applied to a concept we can observe and predict, but don’t really understand. Naming it doesn’t mean it’s ours. Why should “opposites attract” and “like” repel one another? And what is actually doing the attracting and repelling? I know the rules. I know something about atoms. I know just enough about “how” to predict what will happen. I know how to create an electromagnet. I know about radio waves and light waves and a host of other waves that are part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

And I know nothing at all of what’s really going on here.

I know when I look through my telescope at a distant galaxy that electromagnetic waves – energy – from the stars in that galaxy are somehow pinging my brain. And on a fundamental basis I simply don’t know how. I don’t know what that energy is or how it manages to travel all that distance undiminished. (Oh sure, it spreads out. But a photon – something-or-either we name “photon” – leaves a star at 186,200 miles a second and it continues that way for several million years never losing a step until it vanishes into my body. That’s real contact with the real universe, but certainly way beyond our common-sense experience. )

Modern technology tends to obscure the magic – hide it in black boxes that look complex – and are – when you open them up.

So I make simple black boxes. Crystal radio sets, . Simple, simple, simple devices – a few, easy to understand parts. A long wire put in the air. And when I pick up the headphones, sounds. Intelligent sounds. Well, frequently not intelligent these days. AM radio is overloaded with talk-show idiots, or people selling religion or ronco slaad shooters. But that’s not the point. The point is that all the energy that created that sound in my headphones didn’t come from the magic of an electrical socket. And it didn’t come form the magic of a battery. It was drawn instead out of the air – out of the force fields – the electromagnetic waves created by some distant transmitter.

I understand this stuff – honest. That is, I can build from scratch fairly sophisticated radio receivers and transmitters and have done so of and on since my youth. So what. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I have a collection of rules I follow. Connect the arm bone to the shoulder bone – that sort of thing. I know something of the theory of how it all works – why I create coils and capacitors and how they work together in a tuned circuit to select only certain frequencies out of the babel that surrounds us and goes entirely unnoticed by us.

So i take the black boxes we purchase and call radios and I throw them out. I want something simpler. So I build a crystal set. But it’s still complex. little pictures whiz about my head of all those electrons pouring down the wire, heading for ground, but first spining through my coils, pausing in my capacitors, getting chopped in half by a galium crystal and fed into my headphones were they create elctromagnetics that’s pop a thin metal disc in and out so rapidly that it creates sounds. Geeeeeeesh. That’s too much, still. So I go the Edmund Scientific catalog and find a bar magnet and some iron filings and now I’m really functioning at the KISS level. I love it. I can watch this little video over and over. More importantly, i can do the little experiment again and again. I can meditate with the paper before me.

It’s the way I rig encounters with the profoundly unknown. Yes, i can do the same by looking at a candle -a flower, a pebble, an old arrowhead. It’s just that I find some things more stimulating than others – more likely to awake in me that childish sense of wonder I crave. A magnet, a piece of paper and osme iron filings do that. Don’t get me wrong. I assume it’s all knowable. I certainly think it’s all part of one world – the natural world. I don’t see anything super natural. I just see a natural that’s super 😉

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One Response

  1. You might want to get reacquainted with Richard Feynman. I’m reading his QED lectures and find his tone of wonderment akin to yours.

    Cheers!
    dsd

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